New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 24, 2012
WASHINGTON >> In one of his campaign advertisements, Joe Heck emphasizes his long career as a physician taking care of elderly patients. Dan Benishek, in an ad, refers with a tinge of sadness to the "career politician" who is competing with him for a House seat. Ann Kirkpatrick informs viewers that she is extremely fond of driving.
What the two men don't say is that they are members of Congress — Heck a Republican from Nevada and Benishek a Republican from Michigan — and Kirkpatrick doesn't say that she is a former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, looking to get her job back.
Bragging about one's voting record used to be a staple of political advertising, and a career in Congress was worn as a badge of honor. But this year many House candidates are deciding not to mention their service here, a blunt acknowledgment of the dim view that a vast majority of voters have of Congress.
In acts of great creativity, or profound chutzpah, some members, former and current, are shrouding their jobs with fuzzy images of cute children back home or tales of their private sector jobs. Where incumbents are being challenged by former members, the sitting members of Congress are painting their opponents as consummate insiders.
"With record low job approval, it's not surprising that incumbents aren't anxious to highlight their ties to Washington," said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan political publication.
Heck, in an ad that refers to him as "Dr. Joe Heck," speaks about his father's heart attack and points out that "as a doctor I've cared for thousands of seniors." For good measure, he adds at the end, "I'm Dr. Joe Heck, and I approved this message."
Asked about the ad's message, Heck said, "I think there is a natural trust between patients and their doctors, and there should be a trust between constituents and their representatives, and I think talking about my experience as a doctor helps solidify that position."
The fact he is already a member, he said, "is irrelevant to that ad."
In an ad promoting Benishek, also a doctor, the narrator asks ominously, "Would you trust a career politician to save Medicare?" referring to his Democratic challenger, Gary McDowell. The voice then goes on about Benishek's career as a doctor.
McDowell is a politician — a former Chippewa County commissioner and former Michigan state representative — but an uninformed viewer of Benishek's ad might assume he has spent the last two years behind a stethoscope instead of in the well of the House. (For his part, McDowell is more excited in his own ad to talk about his life as a hay farmer from whom, he says not once but twice, Washington could learn much.)
A particularly rich poke comes from Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who is running against Rep. Leonard Boswell, a Democrat, whom Latham refers to in the ad as a "longtime congressman" even though Boswell has not served as long as Latham.
When possible, members like to point out the former ties to Washington of their challengers. One example is an ad produced for Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., in which "voter" after "voter" refers to her opponent, a one-term former Democratic representative and former Capitol Hill staffer, Dan Maffei, as "DC Dan Maffei."
Although it is Buerkle who is currently serving, the ad is meant "to convey the message that he is the consummate Washington insider," said David Ray, a spokesman for her campaign. "This is a guy who runs fancy ads touting his supposed roots in Central New York when he spent almost his entire adult life in DC."
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, wonders why Washington "politicians" like Charlie Wilson, his Democratic opponent and a former member, "don't understand a simple notion like accountability," as if Wilson were among those lawmakers who now vex the nation. Wilson, who represented the 6th Congressional District of Ohio from 2007 to 2011, fights back with an ad that brags about voting against Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and former House speaker, while in Congress.
Former members of Congress are also in on this game. Kirkpatrick of Arizona tells voters that she "really likes to drive" to meet people in her would-be district, but not that she took plenty of flights when she served a term in Washington. Likewise, Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat, has an ad emphasizing the help she gave to veterans, but never mentions that she did so over two terms in Congress for New Hampshire.
Striking a beat somewhere near the middle is Maffei, who notes in an ad that "he wasn't there long."
Members sometimes pretend theirs are new voices, like Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., who says he has policy ideas "because Washington needs to hear this."
Then there is Kristi Noem, R-S.D., whose ad features dramatic music, cowboys and a lady hanging laundry, and is capped by Noem — "one of us" — galloping away on a horse.
"Kristi is a wife, mother, farmer and rancher," said Tom Erickson, Noem's campaign manager. "She has spent her entire life here in South Dakota. She relies on her South Dakota values and common sense in her approach to problems like our staggering national debt. That's the message we're conveying in the ad."
The ad does not, however, mention that she has been serving the cowboys in her district for the better part of two years.